EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Soft Matter and Functional Interfaces

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Chemistry


Soft matter and functional interfaces are ubiquitous! Be it manufactured plastic products (polymers), food (colloids), paint and other decorative coatings (thin films and coatings), contact lenses (hydrogels), shampoo and washing powder (complex mixtures of the above) or biomaterials such as proteins and membranes, soft matter and soft matter surfaces and interfaces touch almost every aspect of human activity and underpin processes and products across all industrial sectors - sectors which account for 17.2% of UK GDP and over 1.1M UK employees (BIS R&D scoreboard 2010 providing statistics for the top 1000 UK R&D spending companies).

The importance of the underlying science to UK plc prompted discussions in 2010 with key manufacturing industries in personal care, plastics manufacturing, food manufacturing, functional and performance polymers, coatings and additives sectors which revealed common concerns for the provision of soft matter focussed doctoral training in the UK and drove this community to carry out a detailed "gap analysis" of training provision. The results evidenced a national need for researchers trained with a broad, multidisciplinary experience across all areas of soft matter and functional interfaces (SOFI) science, industry-focussed transferable skills and business awareness alongside a challenging PhD research project.

Our 18 industrial partners, who have a combined global work force of 920,000, annual revenues of nearly £200 billion, and span the full SOFI sector, emphasized the importance of a workforce trained to think across the whole range of SOFI science, and not narrowly in, for example, just polymers or colloids. A multidisciplinary knowledge base is vital to address industrial SOFI R&D challenges which invariably address complex, multicomponent formulations.

We therefore propose the establishment of a CDT in Soft Matter and Functional Interfaces to fill this gap. The CDT will deliver multidisciplinary core science and enterprise-facing training alongside PhD projects from fundamental blue-skies science to industrially-embedded applied research across the full spectrum of SOFI science.

Further evidence of national need comes from a survey of our industrial partners which indicates that these companies have collectively recruited >100 PhD qualified staff over the last 3 years (in a recession) in SOFI-related expertise, and plan to recruit (in the UK) approximately 150 PhD qualified staff members over the next three years. These recruits will enter research, innovation and commercial roles. The annual SOFI CDT cohort of 16 postgraduates could be therefore be recruited 3 times over by our industrial partners alone and this demand is likely to be the tip of a national-need iceberg.

Planned Impact

SOFI CDT impact is driven by:

1. PEOPLE. The SOFI CDT will have a significant economic and (responsible) societal impact, the greatest of which, will be the students themselves, who will graduate having benefited from a broad and deep scientific education as well as an innovative and enterprise-focussed training program. The training programme is built directly on the UK-wide industrial gap analysis and co-developed by industrial partners. As such it inherently captures the training elements required by the industrial SOFI sector. The network of partnerships will facilitate impact through their engagement in the extensive training programme and through the co-supervision of PhD projects. Cohort training in Responsible Innovation will be embedded from the outset, ensuring students carry a responsible and forward-thinking attitude to research and innovation throughout their careers. The students trained in this programme will learn the skill sets required of the next generation of enterprise leaders in UK plc and pass this to future employers.

2. PROJECTS. The PhD research projects themselves are impact pathways. Whether at the "Industrial Doctorate" end of the spectrum or focussed on fundamental science, all projects have an industrial co-supervisor. Industrial support for every project maximises the possibility of economic impact and the production of IP. Additional opportunities for impact arises from the connectivity and critical mass of the CDT - typically a company may be involved in chains of projects ("serial PhDs" in the main proposal) building from fundamental to applied, overlapping and running throughout the lifetime of the CDT. A key aspect of societal impact is public understanding of science and in addition to reporting project results via the SOFI website, newsletter, partnership meetings and annual CDT conference, students will have be trained in audience-targeted communication and will take part in extensive public communication and outreach activities to publicise their research. The CDT will also drive research impact by carrying our research into the barriers to impact. A research theme with PhD projects jointly supervised by Durham Business School and industrial partners will explore barriers to innovation and commercialisation of SOFI sector research.

3. PARTNERSHIPS. Pathways to impact involve collaborative research with industrial beneficaries large (multinational) and small (SMEs) alike. Managing and nuturing partnerships to maximise impact is a key function of CDT management and our Industrial Advisory Board will advise on potential research impact. Engagement with (in some cases competing) multinationals builds on long expertise and requires sensitive management of IP and confidentiality. Engagement with SMEs often presents different challenges and a detailed strategy to maximise CDT engagement with the SME community has been described in the case for support. SME representation (Ryan, Epigem) on our International Advisory Board will ensure SME engagement and impact remains a core CDT objective.

4. PLATFORMS. The CDT itself constitutes a platform greater than the sum of its parts. The industrial consortium has requested that in addition to other roles they form an "industrial club" along the lines of that run by the UK Polymer IRC. The impact potential of a CDT based industrial club arises from: (i) the opportunity to connect to academics whose expertise fits urgent as well as long-term research needs, (ii) the opportunity to exchange generic best practice in research and innovation and (iii) a forum to catalyse new industry-industry partnerships.

5. PRODUCTS. It is patently true that fundamental areas of science are identified by partner companies, driven by the knowledge that markets emerge once technological challenges have been overcome. It is an expectation that discoveries in fundamental science made within the CDT will drive new product markets and SOFI-sector spin outs.



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